Voicebots didn’t outshine chatbots. Microsoft, Amazon, and others did

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There’s been quite a fervor over voicebots lately, especially as we lead into next week’s MobileBeat 2017 conference on AI, messaging, and personalization. AI has taken center stage, seemingly nudging chatbots out of the limelight even though we all started using them last year.

There’s no nail in the coffin for Messenger bots quite yet (or those from Kik or others), but there is one colossal misunderstanding in the industry. The truth is, voicebots didn’t outshine chatbots because of the speech recognition features and ease of use — at least, not entirely. What really happened is that Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Amazon overshadowed chatbots — and, by extension, took the attention away from Facebook Messenger and other texting tools.

The fundamental problem is that we want utility, not a trend. As an example: For a while, I used a chatbot to check the weather. It was called Poncho. It ran within one app on my phone — Facebook Messenger. But that one app is also part of the Facebook ecosystem. More importantly, it’s an app first, then a bot.

Somehow, the paradigm changed. The bots took one step forward and replaced apps on our phones. They also skipped the smartphone by using a speaker, like Amazon Echo or Google Home (and, soon, the radio in your car and other devices at work).

We prefer direct access to the weather, not an app running a bot. We realized an AI should provide first access, not a second or third layer back. It’s easier to understand if you think of the brand new user. For someone who wants to find out about the weather, here are the steps in a chatbot paradigm. You buy a smartphone, activate the service, register for Facebook, then install Facebook on your phone, install Messenger, and finally install the chatbot. With a voicebot, you buy the speaker and ask about the weather. Skills on Amazon Echo are more like adding apps after you already start using the bot. It’s a second-tier offering.

Worse yet for chatbots, each individual layer adds more complexity and confusion. I might have used Poncho or And Chill or Hello Jarvis for a while, but eventually you start forgetting which bot you really want. The irony with all of this is that, for the last year, chatbot developers have been saying that the app is a tired and cumbersome paradigm. But chatbots slowly became just as tired and cumbersome. The reason voicebots are here to stay is that they don’t use the app model. The companies behind them — namely, the big four I’ve already mentioned — are turning voicebots like Alexa into a smartphone replacement, not an app replacement.

Many chatbot developers missed this. They never set out to replace the phone itself; instead, they tried to replace the apps. But users were sick of managing apps because they wanted more of an all-encompassing solution. The goal wasn’t “chatbots replace apps” but “voicebots replace phones” and now, it seems, they are suffering for it as people keep trying new chatbots and then losing interest. You can almost hear what they are saying.

“This is just an AI version of an app,” they say. That’s right! The real goal is to replace the phone, to avoid having to type at all, to have bots that are ever-present and proactive. And there is a long way to go before that is fully realized. Voicebots will have to become more and more powerful and smarter.

So where does that leave everyone besides the major players?

My guess is that, leading into 2018, the voicebots will become smarter as companies like Poncho, And Chill, and Hello Jarvis figure out how to integrate with the voicebots more closely. At some point, you’ll decide to enable a slightly sarcastic weatherbot. You’ll want the voicebot to get smarter about movie recommendations. You’ll prefer Hello Jarvis as a reminder service.

And there will be companies that suddenly emerge from the shadows and take on Alexa with a more powerful voicebot that “does it all” and becomes a better personal assistant. Maybe it will come from a company like Facebook, or even Twitter, who knows? It’s an exciting time because voicebots now have a firm hold on users. Now it’s time to take the next step and make them much more powerful right out of the box. Chatbots won’t go away, but the voicebots will rule.

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